Poem of the Day: ‘Paul Revere’s Ride’ by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Charles Green Bush / The New York Public Library
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

On this day in 1775, patriots in Lexington and Concord fought the first battles of the American Revolution. Which means that the late hours of last night and the very early hours of this morning marked the anniversary of another memorable event in American history, recalled by Atlantic co-founder Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-Five

Longfellow’s famous poem recounts the silversmith’s long ride through Middlesex County to warn the revolutionaries that the British were on their way—thus allowing the Americans to muster their forces and drive back the British the following morning.

Paul Revere’s Ride” first appeared in our January 1861 issue, just months before the Civil War broke out. As Sage Stossel noted in her 2011 preface to the poem, the timing was no accident:

Longfellow was a committed abolitionist … With “Paul Revere’s Ride,” he sought to create a patriotic national myth that would remind readers of their shared heroic past while galvanizing them to once more stand up for the nation’s founding principles.

The patriotic myth Longfellow created has certainly endured, long after the abolitionist cause that inspired him to publish it claimed victory in the Civil War. As a kid, I first learned about Revere and the lead-up to the battles of Lexington and Concord from Longfellow’s poem, and my mom, when Revere’s ride is mentioned, can still recite several lines from memory. According to then-poet laureate Robert Pinsky’s “Poetry and American Memory,” from our October 1999 issue, she’s not the only one:

Part of our peculiar claim to greatness as a nation rests on the fact that we have done without many elements that might be thought of as the marks of a great people, among them a myth of origin. Americans have been suckled by no wolf, sired by no Trojan fleeing Troy; they are not descended from the sun or from dragon’s teeth sown in the earth, not chosen by a god or descended from Olympian trysts with mortal maidens, not descended from any totem animal or enchanted soil or ancient race. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, passionately determined that the young American nation develop a distinct culture for its people, wrote “Paul Revere’s Ride” in a conscious effort to supply such a myth—and with some success: I can testify that many Americans, including Senator Edward Kennedy, have much of the poem by heart.

In 2000’s “Recollecting Longfellow,” our poetry editor David Barber celebrated these patriotic efforts, their significance, and their legacy:

Longfellow deserves no less than to be remembered as the native bard who gave mythic dimension to the country’s historical imagination, a national poet of epic sweep and solemn feeling who came along right at the moment when the emerging nation had the most need for one.

In remembrance of Longfellow’s remarkable career and Revere’s ride, here are a few more lines of the poem—the very same ones that I long ago recited for an elementary-school class:

So through the night rode Paul Revere;
And so through the night went his cry of alarm
To every Middlesex village and farm, —
A cry of defiance, and not of fear, —
A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door,
And a word that shall echo forevermore!